Home Finance News Her husband was abusive. He was also a cop. Is there a link?

Her husband was abusive. He was also a cop. Is there a link?


On a cold winter day, the staff at a wedding venue in rural England were working their way around a long, horseshoe-shaped table.

The hall was full of drunken chatter; wine and local mead were spilling out of clinking glasses. Cora, the bride, had a rosy nose from posing for photographs in the chill outside. She had dated the groom, Steve, for several years before their marriage and, by then, they had two children and another on the way. When Cora’s father Paul first met Steve a year earlier, he warmed to him instantly. Paul found his future son-in-law pleasant, helpful, down-to-earth. The perfect village bobby. 

When the time came for the father of the bride’s speech, he stood up across the table from the couple and cleared his throat. His eyes watered, flitting from the piece of paper in his hands to Steve and back. He could not have chosen anybody better for Cora, Paul confessed. He closed by thanking the groom for the way he made his daughter feel about herself. To some of the guests, the bride seemed distant, her smile a little forced, as the family squeezed together for pictures against a backdrop of rolling hills. They dismissed it as wedding-day jitters.

A year ago, Cora burned her wedding photos. She could no longer bear to look at them; the woman smiling back at her made her anxious and angry. “I just wish I could go back and save her from all of that,” she says when we meet in the small house where she now lives with her children and a menagerie of pets. Cora is not her real name; to protect her and her children’s safety, some names in this story have been changed.

Cora’s living room doubles as an exhibition space for her creativity. Hanging above the dining table is a chandelier she crafted from ribbons and strings of beads. The room is dotted with woven blankets, dreamcatchers and handmade dolls. She is slight and softly spoken, wearing a brightly coloured, flowing dress and sitting with her legs tucked under herself. Her dog is settled between my feet. She says that whenever she looked at photos from around the time of the wedding, she always wondered, “How can nobody see how sad that woman is?” 

For a decade, both before and after the wedding, Cora says she was psychologically and sexually abused by Steve, who was and still is a police officer. She believes he used his extensive professional training to terrorise her and their children. A marriage counsellor once told Steve: “Cora feels like she’s not a person in the home, like she’s a prisoner. You treat her like you would someone you’ve arrested.” Steve, Cora realised, was never off-duty.

Around the time Cora destroyed her wedding mementoes, she heard news on the radio about a 33-year-old woman named Sarah Everard. Everard was kidnapped in London by Wayne Couzens, a serving Metropolitan Police officer. Couzens arrested Everard under false pretences and drove her to a remote location, where he raped and murdered her. Cora could imagine it all: how he might have spoken to her, the language and tone he might have used. Couzens was later sentenced to life imprisonment. The Met’s mishandling of the Everard case became national news. 

A report published this February by the Independent Office for Police Conduct, which is responsible for overseeing the system for handling complaints made against police forces, revealed a culture of misogyny, machismo and discrimination within one Metropolitan Police station. The investigation uncovered WhatsApp messages exchanged between colleagues, which included rape threats. One officer wrote, “Now I know why these daft c***s are getting murdered by their spastic boyfriends. Knock a bird about and she will love you. Human nature, they are biologically programmed to like that shit.” A week after the report, Metropolitan Police commissioner Dame Cressida Dick, the first woman to ever hold the post, resigned; the position is yet to be filled. On June 28, Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS), responsible for the inspection of the police forces, placed the Met under “special measures”, an administrative category for public institutions in crisis. It cited “serious or critical shortcomings” in the force. 

The culture within British police forces at large is only likely to come under further scrutiny. Information I obtained this year through freedom of information requests shows that more than 1,300 police officers and staff across the UK were reported for domestic abuse between January 2018 and September 2021. Some 82 per cent of those are still working, patrolling the streets, responding to calls, making arrests. (These records only include accusations that are reported to the police, and domestic abuse is generally under-reported.) On June 30, police regulators published a landmark review of how forces deal with cases of domestic abuse. It revealed an array of systematic failures, including repeatedly mishandling accusations of professional misconduct, and raised a number of urgent questions. Among them: is there a relationship between working as a police officer and committing domestic abuse?

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Cora met Steve when she was a teenager. She was dating his best friend but would catch glimpses of Steve at parties or on nights out. He was good-looking and energetic, but he was known for never backing down in a fight. Cora’s home life was chaotic, her father absent. He left when she was a child, and it would be years until she saw him again, decades before they developed a relationship. 

Years later, Cora was sofa-surfing in England after a year backpacking abroad, and she reconnected with Steve. He was living in London, serving with the Metropolitan Police. He urged Cora to move nearby so they could get to know each other, which she did. As they began dating, there were troubling signs. He could be controlling. Before they got together, Steve told Cora he needed to check with her ex-boyfriend first. Confused and uncomfortable, she felt like she was being passed on to him like a possession.

Cora broke up with Steve, but soon afterwards found out she was pregnant. “He was delighted. I was in tears. He rang his mum and said he was having a baby. And that was it; we were together,” she says. “I didn’t feel like I had a choice in it.” She felt as if she had boarded a high-speed train, the doors sealing behind her. The next few years flew by in a blur.

On their wedding night, Cora was in bed, sober, pregnant and exhausted, before the party ended. Steve was drunk when he got back to their room, Cora says. “He grabbed me. And he shoved a pillow under my stomach, shoved me down and raped me. I was crying. I was saying ‘no’. And I couldn’t move, I was in so much pain.” Cora was bleeding and thinking of her unborn baby. “I just remember thinking, God, you’re such a despicable woman. You cannot protect your baby. How could you let this happen to your baby?” When it was over, she curled up and sobbed. The next morning, the guests bustled around the wedding venue, hungover but cheerful. There was no one Cora could turn to. “I just realised I’d made the biggest mistake of my life,” she says. “I felt like I had just done the most stupid thing by marrying him. I was broken, really broken, and never said ‘no’ again.”

Cora and Steve moved to the countryside. Nowadays, thoughts of that house set Cora’s teeth on edge. She was always exhausted there, always chasing after the children. Her friend Rebecca, one of the wedding guests, remembers that Cora was “pretty much on her own with everything. She always had to do it herself.” But Rebecca didn’t know the extent of the abuse at the time. “Back then, [Cora] was a very private person,” she says. She “didn’t talk about anything”. Steve dismissed Cora’s crying as postnatal hormones. He repeatedly told her that police officers thought domestic abuse cases were “all bollocks” and that the force was “a family”. She would come to recognise this as a threat.

Cora’s recollection of events during the following years is hazy, but fragments of Steve’s behaviour stand out in her memory. The abuse took different forms. Whenever they were out, Steve was always the one to decide when it was time for her to go home. She wasn’t allowed to take baths on her own; he’d make her bathe with him, wash him and give him oral sex. She didn’t have access to money or a mobile phone. Then there was the constant checking in. Steve would call the house phone at least twice a day or drop by, dressed in his uniform. Cora remembers the heavy steps of his steel-toed boots, which made him a couple of inches taller, and the police radio, always switched on, crackling on his shoulder. His Taser was holstered on to his bulletproof vest; he was one of the first people in his local force to be granted a licence to use one. He had also shown interest in joining an armed response unit. “He wanted to be around guns,” Cora says.

To her, all of Steve’s actions seemed like a thinly veiled grab for power. “He was rough. He loved having fights with criminals. He’d go out in plain clothes and come back scuffed up,” she says. Sometimes, he used what Cora describes as “police-y moves” on her and the children. “He used to do that to the kids, put his hand around their necks. It was awful. He’d press his thumb into your shoulder, just really squeezing it,” she says. 

When Steve returned from a training course designed to teach police officers about “trauma-informed responses” to domestic abuse cases, things got worse. He was animated by what he’d learnt, particularly that some abusers carefully programme their victims to obey them. “He was delighted knowing this, that there’s a way in which [abusers] speak, there’s a tone, there are these things called hooks,” she says. “That you can control someone to that degree was exciting.” 

Steve’s abuse sharpened after that. It became non-verbal, silencing Cora with a look, a tut, a roll of the eyes. When he gave her orders, he raised his voice and looked her in the eye. But the rest of the time, he refused to meet her gaze. “He got that from the course,” she says. “He never did that before. He learnt all that from the course.”

© Simon Pemberton

Over time, Cora’s sense of self eroded until she felt she had disappeared completely. She begged Steve to leave, which he finally did a few years after their wedding. Cora became suicidal and started to harm herself. At first, she used sharp pieces of wood and stinging nettles. Then she sought out the pain of tattoos. She lost so much weight that her skin sank into the hollows between her bones. “When you’re in that fight or flight [mode], you can’t fall apart because you’re constantly trying to survive,” she says. “And as soon as he left, I started to fall apart because I was safe.” 

A family services worker referred Cora to a support group but didn’t tell her it was for victims of domestic abuse. When she arrived at the meeting and realised where she was, Cora burst into tears. “That was the first time I had any idea as to what was happening to me,” she says. A woman who attended the same group tells me that Cora “would come into the group every week crying”. Another remembers that she looked terrified: “She was very scared of him. And I think she was scared for her children, scared for how things were, because he was so forceful.” On average, two women a week in England and Wales are killed by a current or former partner.

Cora and the children moved after Steve left. Her independent domestic violence adviser made sure that the local housing association logged her anonymously. The notes in the support plan devised by her adviser read: “Security of the home — check the doors and windows, are they secure? Agreed action: Will not disclose new location to abuser. Sanctuary referral for new address. Personal alarm to be kept within easy reach, especially when out and about. Mobile phone on person and charged at all times. Plan an escape route out of the home. Teach the children when and how to call 999.” 

But Cora suspects Steve was able to find her using his professional resources. One day, a window at her property was smashed, but nothing was stolen. A neighbour saw a man standing in Cora’s garden watching the house. Somebody graffitied her wall and cut through some bushes in her garden. At the time, Cora phoned Jane, a friend she made at the support group, in a panic. “She thought she was going crazy. She was freaking out, saying, ‘He knows where I live,’” Jane says. Cora says that “going through that process made me realise that trying to hide from these people is a mistake. Because they use the system to their benefit.” 

When Cora reported the incident to the police, one of Steve’s colleagues came to follow up. During the interview, he leaned back in his chair and told her he knew Steve really well. “[It was] like he was enjoying himself. I felt so uncomfortable,” she recalls. “And in the end, I asked him to leave because I got what he was telling me. I heard the message loud and clear.”

© Simon Pemberton

A crucial question about police domestic abuse is the extent to which there’s a connection between working in law enforcement and being an abuser. In the UK, there has been considerable academic research into domestic violence. Since 2001, the Office for National Statistics has published data on domestic abuse rates. But research into police-perpetrated domestic abuse is scant. Policing and domestic abuse experts told me the area where the two fields overlap remains largely uncharted. One police researcher I spoke to suggested the number of cases might be low enough per force that it hasn’t been considered a systemic issue. An academic who specialises in abuse and violence says: “Funding for research on police-perpetrated domestic abuse [is] difficult to get via independent academic-funding routes, resulting in increased competition for public funding.” She adds: “That means anything too risky or controversial is difficult to get funded.”

There has been more research into the issue in the US. Two studies from the 1990s found that 40 per cent of US police officers surveyed admitted to having been violent with their partner or children in the previous year. The abuse rate was up to four times that of the general public. In 2000, the FBI Academy held a conference on domestic violence by police officers, sparked by a concern that the poor police response to such cases could be partly rooted in officers inflicting violence at home. It urged departmental reform as well as more research. In 2003, the International Association of Chiefs of Police drew up a policy for tackling the problem; it suggested, for example, that recruiters ask applicants not only about convictions for domestic abuse but also whether they’ve been investigated or arrested for it. 

But no large population-based studies into the issue have been carried out in the US since the 1990s, and research has decreased dramatically in the past 20 years. A 2018 study by US academics speculated that the lack of data available from police departments may have to do with their distinctive culture, including an unwritten “blue code of silence” that prioritises loyalty to fellow officers. 

Improving gender balance has been seen as a corrective to a broad range of problems in the culture of policing. In 2019, the UK government pledged to recruit an additional 20,000 police officers in England and Wales by the end of March 2023, with an emphasis on hiring women. March 2022 marked the largest percentage of female officers in England and Wales to date: 34.4 per cent, compared with 31.7 per cent before the recruitment campaign. Deputy chief constable Maggie Blyth, national lead for violence against women and girls at the National Police Chiefs’ Council, said earlier this year that abusive officers should not be dismissed as “a few bad apples”. “Policing must continue to shine a light on those who abuse their position or whose standards fall below that expected of a police officer,” she wrote in an email to me. “Other cases will come to light as we root this out and build back the trust we know we have lost.”

Some researchers believe it may be possible to draw a line between the sexist culture of some police forces and violence in the home. Dr Eduardo Vasquez, a senior lecturer in forensic psychology at the University of Kent, cites a concept called “social dominance orientation”, which refers to the desire for your social group to be dominant. He says in settings with “high levels of sexism and discrimination, like police forces, you would expect social dominance orientation to be high”. That could contribute to aggression at home, Vasquez argues. Professor Evan Stark, an American sociologist and forensic social worker, coined the term “coercive control” to define a pattern of abuse in which threats and intimidation are used as a means of control. Stark tells me that because abusive police officers have access to private information, it allows them to stalk their victims easily. “[An officer] has access to ID systems, access to children’s records, which we don’t have,” he says. Coercive control has been a criminal offence in the UK since 2015.

Several former and current police officers from around the country I spoke to offered a range of theories. “There’s an element of people being attracted to joining the police because it’s authoritarian and fits the narcissistic and controlling mindset of domestic abusers,” one officer said. “But on the other side, you quickly learn you have to be authoritarian to do the job, and that can transfer into your home life.” A female ex-officer told me that, after she reported her colleagues for sexism, “all those people that I would want to put my life on the line for turned their backs, every single one of them”.

Another woman, currently serving as a detective constable, said she reported a colleague who abused her when they were in a relationship. He was not suspended and continued to work alongside female officers for years, during which time he told their co-workers that her allegations were a lie. “No one, no rank spoke to me for months,” she said. “I was left on my own at home, off sick. No one took any interest in me. I could have literally killed myself and they wouldn’t have known.” This year, a tribunal found her abuser guilty of gross misconduct and barred him from ever serving in the police. But he was not charged with any crime by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) as its “legal test was not met”, meaning the evidence was insufficient for a criminal proceeding. 

The Metropolitan Police told me that it offers an employee assistance programme, counselling and volunteer chaplains for its officers and staff.

According to the freedom of information requests, fewer than 3 per cent of UK police officers and staff reported for domestic abuse in the past four years have been dismissed from their jobs. The vast majority continue to work, and most of those who are no longer working either resigned or retired. Moreover, only 9 per cent of those who were reported were professionally disciplined, a response that varies across forces and can mean anything from a written warning to a brief suspension from duty.

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A decade after their wedding, Cora decided to report Steve to the police. In one document, her independent domestic violence adviser, who was too afraid to accompany Cora to court in case Steve targeted her too, flagged the risk: “Abuser . . . has always used his power as a police officer to scare and intimidate Cora. When she discloses her abuse to the police, her risk level will increase dramatically.” 

When a police officer in the UK is reported for a crime, they are, in theory, investigated twice. There is a criminal investigation, the evidence from which is sent to the CPS to decide whether there is enough to charge them with a criminal offence. Additionally, a misconduct investigation is opened by the police force’s Professional Standards Department, which serves the individual a misconduct notice and sometimes decides to restrict their contact with the public or suspend them while the investigation is ongoing. 

The force that investigated Steve, following Cora’s police report, was a local branch of the umbrella force in which he served. The criminal case against him was closed after nine months due to insufficient evidence. Cora asked for a review, and received an email response from the detective constable investigating the case: “Rape and sexual assault cases are very difficult to prove as it is usually, as in this case, one word against the other.” 

Cora’s solicitor says that, when deciding to close an investigation, the police “haven’t necessarily had any legal advice because they don’t always refer up to the Crown Prosecution Service”. In Cora’s case, the solicitor argues, medical records make reference to her PTSD and mental health issues resulting from abuse. She was part of several support groups for domestic abuse survivors and had a specialist counsellor for more than two years. The youngest of her children, all of whom witnessed and were victims of Steve’s abuse, was referred to an adolescent emotional-trauma therapist. Following her solicitor’s appeal, Cora’s case was reopened, then closed a year later on the same grounds as before. Cora intends to appeal the decision. “We’re still basically at stage one,” she says. “I feel, even today, I am bound by this person.”

In 2020, a London-based NGO called the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ) lodged an official complaint against all forces in England and Wales over alleged mishandling of police-perpetrated domestic abuse cases such as Cora’s. The complaint included detailed testimony. One woman said her police statement was shown to her husband, a serving officer, who was the suspect. The statement was later lost. Another learnt that the seals on her evidence bag had never even been opened. Multiple women said that the witnesses they put forward had never been contacted. And some cases suggested explicit corruption. One council worker said a police inspector tried to block her team from looking into two allegations of domestic abuse made against officers. The complaint listed incidents in which investigating officers were Facebook friends or tagged in photos together socialising with the accused while the case was ongoing. The CWJ submission initially included testimony from 19 women, but some 165 more have come forward since.

Last week, a response to the CWJ’s complaint was published by the Independent Office for Police Conduct, HMICFRS and the College of Policing, the police training and standards body. The report found “systemic weaknesses in the police response to domestic abuse involving police suspects”, including a lack of robust safeguards against corruption, such as requiring written confirmation that none of the officers investigating a case know the suspect. It also found that police forces used decisions not to charge the accused with a criminal offence as an excuse not to open a professional misconduct case against that person. Another such excuse, the report found, was that the abuse was committed “off duty”. The regulators will ask all forces to respond within six months setting out the changes they plan to make, but they do not have the power to enforce them. 

Steve now knows where Cora lives, but she thinks she’s safer in the open. She has bought herself a distinctive car so that people can recognise it. Her house is sandwiched between neighbours, and it has large windows that you can see into easily. She sacrifices her privacy to feel safe. Therapy and creative outlets such as painting have helped her cope. Her canvases are bold, patchy smears of bright colours, anxious-looking characters with large, watery eyes and purple skin. She shows me her recent work, an autobiographical account of living “in custody”, as she puts it. The style is new for her, and she says the process of revisiting the trauma was healing. She props up the canvases in a row and studies them: “They’re all about surviving the unsurvivable.”

Sarah Haque is a freelance writer working with The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based NGO. Additional reporting by Alexandra Heal

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